All day, the sky had been threatening rain, though it had only just begun to fall. "Every time it rains, somebody dies, huh," Pumpkin said .
She and Falicia were riding south on I-85, Falicia behind the wheel. Strange words, Falicia thought. Moments ago, the girls had been hanging out at their friend Ray's apartment, with Ray and his buddy Doc. Now they were driving away from a crime scene.
"Girl, what in the world just happened?" Falicia asked. She was the one who pulled the trigger.
"I don't know," Pumpkin answered. She had Ray and Doc's money in her hand. She was counting it .
The girls stopped at a gas station. Falicia stuffed a duffel bag in the trash. It held everything they remembered touching at Ray's: a glass, a Coke can and a photo book they'd been flipping through .
When they got back to the motel where Falicia had been staying, Mike was waiting. He handed Falicia a blunt.
"Mama," he called her, a pet name, "you wiped everything down, right?"
He was saying some other stuff, but she wasn't listening. Not at first. She was totally out of it .
He told her he was going out to score more weed. She did remember that. He said he'd be hitting the "track," a stretch of dope and prostitution trade on Metropolitan Avenue. He'd also see about getting another room for the night, somewhere they could lay low.
But he was taking awhile.
Falicia called his cell. There were girls screaming in the background. Mike had bad news. The money she and Pumpkin had given him, Ray and Doc's money - the money she pulled the trigger for - was gone. Mike had been robbed .
"My God," Falicia said. "This cannot be happening."
He came back to the motel with no dope and no money. He kept repeating to Falicia that she couldn't go to sleep until she got it back. All the work she'd done would be for nothing unless she found someone else to rob. She says he told her she had to hit another lick. She told him she would .
But to herself she said, no way. She wasn't about to pull the trigger again. She was thinking she'd just trick off with somebody, get some money from a john and then steal the rest. Hitting three men? That's just too much to deal with in one night .
Malls hold bad memories for Cariletta "Smokey" Knox.
Her sister, Marion, was murdered by her boyfriend in the summer of 1991. Smokey was 19 when Marion died, and she'd grown into Marion's almost exact likeness: slender, Kate Moss build; long, shiny-straight hair; an affinity for designer jeans and tinted shades. A few years back, she unnerved Marion's boyfriend when they ran into each other at the mall. He'd served six years for voluntary manslaughter and had just gotten out . Man, how he stared. Smokey must have looked like a ghost.
On Aug. 15, 2002, Smokey was leaving Lenox Square with her boyfriend, Sam Flowers, when her friend "G." called. Smokey had stopped at the mall to pick up a shirt to wear that night. It was her friend Denise's birthday. A bunch of them - including Smokey's brother Ray, who was dating Denise - were going out in Buckhead.
It was dark out as Smokey and Sam made their way through the parking lot. G. was freaking out. "I was on the phone with Doc," he told Smokey, "and I heard about five or six gunshots." G. said he'd stayed on the line a good 10 minutes after the gunfire and heard what sounded like someone gasping. He'd also made out girls' voices saying, "Get the money. Get the money" .
Smokey hung up and called her other sister, Sherita, describing to her what G. had said. Smokey had a hard time grasping what Sherita said next: Doc had been with Ray, at Ray's apartment. Sherita was sure of it. Ray had called her a little over an hour ago, around 8 p.m., and told her Doc was there with him .
No, Smokey thought. It's not possible. Not Ray.
You've got to go over there, Sherita urged her. On the way, Smokey tried calling Doc's phone first. No answer. She tried Ray. Same thing. But she brushed off any worry. Ray must have stepped out or something.
She and Sam turned around and headed to her place in Decatur so she could change. For the next hour, she kept trying Ray's cell, and he kept not answering. By now, it was after 10 p.m.
Smokey and Sam finally drove over to Ray's. When Smokey saw Doc's truck out in front of Ray's building, her gut stiffened. She made Sam go in .
He knocked first. No answer. The door wasn't locked, so he peeked in. Just to the left of the door was the couch. Doc was sitting in it, slumped over. He looked like he'd passed out. Sam didn't want to go in; he yelled at Doc from the doorway. Nothing. He grabbed a bottle of water from the car and ran back to splash it on Doc. That's when he noticed the blood on his neck. And the other body .
He was on the floor on the far side of the couch, lying on his back next to the sliding glass door. He was holding a couch pillow to his chest. There was Ray .
Sam went back to the car. "They're here, but they're gone," he told Smokey. "They're dead" .
When Falicia left Mike at the motel, she brought Pumpkin with her. She figured it would be easier for two girls to attract a high roller than one. On certain nights of the week - Thursdays in particular - certain clubs in Buckhead are hot with money: out-of-towner money, bachelor-party money, guys-out-drinking-with-cash-to-burn-and-an-itch-to-scratch money. Someone was bound to fall for them. If things were slow at one bar, they'd move on to the next .
Falicia and Pumpkin happened to be outside Fuel, the club where Ray had planned to celebrate Denise's birthday, when someone bit. Lemetrice "Big Mechi" Twitty was an Ohio-born master barber who'd come to Atlanta four years ago chasing success. And he found it. He'd cut the hair of bands including George Clinton's P-Funk and Tony! Toni! Tone! He'd ingratiated himself into the scene. He'd hobnobbed with P. Diddy .
But all hadn't gone well for Mechi in Atlanta. The night of the 2000 Super Bowl, he and a bunch of buddies from his native Akron were celebrating in Buckhead when a fight broke out outside Cobalt Lounge. Jacinth Baker, an orphan whom Mechi called "my little guy," and Richard Lollar, a fellow barber, were knocked to the ground. Mechi thought they were unconscious. They'd been stabbed to death .
Mechi and a third friend, Marlin Burros, ran to Marlin's truck, where Marlin grabbed a gun from the cab. He started shooting at a retreating limo. He believed it held Jacinth and Richard's attackers. Inside the limo was Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis .
Lewis and two other men, Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley, were indicted less than two weeks after the stabbings and were tried that summer for the murders of Jacinth and Richard. All three walked.
Mechi's mother, Gloria, says her son never was the same after that. He'd grown up with Jacinth and Richard and had to stand by helplessly as they died. Then to see the men he believed responsible go free - it was too much.
Two-and-a-half years later, on the night of Aug. 15 and into the morning, Mechi was hanging out not three blocks from where Jacinth and Richard were killed. He noticed a girl walk by him outside Fuel. He asked for her name and number. It's Ameshia, she told him, writing her number down. But most people called her Pumpkin .
Pumpkin and Falicia certainly were interested in Mechi. He looked like money, what with all the rings and chunky diamond in his ear. But the girls moved on. They only happened to run into him a little while later, just up Peachtree Road in the IHOP parking lot. They all went back to his place .
Mechi lived in Clarkston, in a second-floor unit inside a wooded complex called Lakeshore Apartments. They smoked a few blunts. Falicia gave him a blowjob. One of the girls - each says it was the other - slept with him .
As Mechi dozed off, they rummaged through the apartment looking for his cash. Falicia pulled her gun. Mechi woke and, realizing what was going on, started to scream.
"Calm down," Falicia remembers telling him. "It's not going down like that. Nobody's going to hurt you. Just stay calm."
"You want my jewelry?" he pleaded. He began to pull off his rings and flung them on the ground. Pumpkin crouched down to grab one. Falicia says Mechi lunged for her, so she shot him, again and again . A neighbor heard the gunshots - five, she guessed - at around 2 or 3 a.m. .
"I just let go on the trigger," Falicia would later say, "and all of them bullets emptied" .
They made off with the gold Maxima Mechi had rented, and $650 .
AUGUST 17-AUGUST 25, 2002
Gloria Twitty returned to Akron the morning of Saturday, Aug. 17, after attending a gospel music workshop in Detroit. She spent the day running errands and was pulling into the driveway of her three-bedroom ranch house when she heard the phone ringing inside. It was her son's friend, Marshelti Townsend.
"Nobody has seen Mechi since Thursday," Marshelti told her. The day before, one of Mechi's coworkers at Hair Untouchables knew something was up when Mechi's clients started coming in and Mechi was nowhere to be found. Nor would Mechi answer his phone .
"Go to his apartment," Gloria told Marshelti. "Now."
Marshelti said he'd call as soon as he heard something. Gloria dropped to her knees and prayed. She'd seen Mechi only a week earlier when he came to Akron to bring his 10-year-old son to the boy's mother. Before he headed back to Atlanta, Gloria and Mechi talked until 4 a.m. He told her things were going well. He was happy in Atlanta, despite what went down with Jacinth and Richard.
Almost an hour passed from the time Marshelti called to the time the phone rang again. It wasn't Marshelti this time but Gloria's godson, Marlin, the one who'd been with Mechi the night Jacinth and Richard were killed. "Did Marshelti call you back?"
"No," she said.
Marlin lost it. "No, Gee-Gee," he cried. "No. I gotta go."
Within minutes, Marlin's mother was at the door.
"What?" Gloria asked, filling with dread. Before the woman had a chance to answer, Gloria knew what Marlin's mother had come to tell her.
When Marshelti got to Mechi's apartment, he knocked first. Then he kicked the door in. The television and all the lights were on. Mechi was facedown in the middle of the living room. Five shell casings and an unused condom were scattered around his head, and an air mattress had been thrown over him. But Marshelti could still see the blood.
He called 911. When DeKalb County police showed, they found Marshelti outside. He was yelling over and over, "I can't believe this shit!" .
Inside, police found the body and the casings, but no gun and no obvious signs of a burglary. At first, there was little aside from the caliber of the bullets - they were .32s - to link Mechi's murder to Ray's and Doc's. Shoe-leather detective work would soon help investigators gain on Falicia and Pumpkin. But ultimately, the girls would give themselves away.
Detectives quickly moved in to question everyone who talked to either Ray or Doc in the hours leading up to their deaths: John "G." Martin; Ray's sisters, Smokey and Sherita; Doc's wife, Paulette Jones; and Ray's girlfriend, Audrey "Denise" Turner .
Denise relayed to police what Ray had told her around 7 on the night he died: Two girls named "Peaches" and "Snow" were at the apartment. She said she knew who the girls were, and that they had a pimp named Mike. She also said the bathroom attendant at Goosebumps strip club might be able to tell police where the girls stayed.
Less than five hours into the investigation, two DeKalb County police detectives made their way to the downtown Atlanta strip club. They scooted in just before last call, around 3:30 a.m. They were moving fast, but they were too late. By then, Mechi most likely was dead .
Later that morning, some other DeKalb detectives received word that two prostitutes called Peaches and Snow might be working out of InTown Suites, a seedy motel overlooking a bowling alley and a Mrs. Winner's off Piedmont Road. An InTown Suites security guard and a resident both told detectives that girls named Peaches and Snow hung around the hotel, under the command of "Mike the pimp." But they weren't there that night . That was Friday. By Monday, police still hadn't narrowed in on them.
Smokey, who'd heard from Denise that Peaches and Snow might be the killers, was pretty sure she knew who the police were looking for. On Monday, she went down to a couple clubs, Dancer's Elite first, then Goosebumps, and asked to see the dancers' permits. Nobody gave her a problem, because most of the employees knew her. Smokey used to dance at Goosebumps, Dancer's Elite and a couple other strip clubs, too. Though she didn't work at any of them while Peaches did, Smokey knew of her.
As she flipped through the pages of girls' faces at Goosebumps, Smokey began to wonder whether she'd recognize Peaches even if she did find her. They'd only met a few times, once at Smokey's house when she was hosting a fish fry, and again at a Lake Lanier boat party Ray had thrown. Maybe Peaches would look different in her permit picture.
A few faces made Smokey pause, but it was the height and weight on one permit that got her to stop. She was almost positive. A hundred girls might look like Peaches, but this was the one. She checked the name on the permit. It said "Falicia Blakely" .
Smokey went straight to DeKalb County police headquarters and handed Sgt. T.S. Hunt a copy of the permit. Running a check on the name, police pulled a mug shot of Falicia, taken when she was arrested three weeks earlier. She'd been caught in a speeding car with dope in her purse.
Yep, Smokey said when they showed her the mug. That's her .
Even with Falicia's name in their hands, it would be six more days before police caught up with her.
The woman behind the register at Mrs. Winner's, the one on Piedmont Road near InTown Suites, noticed something familiar about the three customers who'd been hanging out in the restaurant way too long. Both they and the car they were driving, a gold Maxima, fit the description of suspects wanted in two Mrs. Winner's robberies that took place two days prior.
After those robberies, one in East Point and one in Decatur, a warning went out to all Mrs. Winner's restaurants in the Atlanta area: Be on the lookout for two young black women, driving a gold Maxima, who might be casing out a robbery. The warning also stated that one of the women might be a former shift manager from the East Point location named Ameshia Ervin.
The woman behind the register called 911. Three Atlanta Police patrol cars responded. By the time the cops barged in, the girls were holed up in the bathroom. One of them - the officers didn't specify who - immediately stepped out and into police custody. After repeated demands to give themselves up, the other two girls followed. In one of the bathroom stalls, in the tank of the toilet, an officer found a gun. In one of the girl's purses, another officer found a clip for a .32.
Running a check on the Maxima's license plate number, police discovered the tag belonged to a different car. Using the VIN number, they learned the car was a rental, one that DeKalb County police had reported stolen nine days earlier - from a man who'd been shot dead in his Clarkston apartment.
Falicia Blakely, Ameshia Ervin and Venus Hairston (another of Mike's girls, with whom Falicia was arrested during the traffic stop in July) were taken to Atlanta Police headquarters. Within hours, they were handed over to DeKalb authorities and charged with murder .
AFTER THE CAPTURE
From the moment of her arrest, Falicia gave up trying to run from what she'd done.
That night, she was placed in an 8-by-8-foot witness room. Her cuffs were removed. She was given food. And she agreed with little fanfare to write out, with the help of a detective, a sweeping description of the murders of Ray Goodwin, Claudell "Doc" Christmas and Lemetrice Twitty .
"It was Thursday, I think a week ago," she begins. "Ray told me to come over and give him some [Ecstasy] beenies." She goes on to describe how "the big boy with the twists" - Doc - "came over," how she "shot him ... in the head" and how "Ray started to scream."
"I fired one round at him," she continues, "and then shot all the bullets out of the gun."
Regarding Mechi, she says, "He had on a lot of jewelry so we knew he had money." Back at his apartment, when he allegedly went for Pumpkin, she says, "I took out my pistol and shot it at big boy. I unloaded it on him. I shot him in the head."
Apart from some minor differences, Pumpkin's story went the same way .
Neither version, however, mentions a pimp named Mike. It took months for Falicia's public defenders to get her to describe her relationship with Michael Berry the way it already had been described to police by other witnesses. "It took time for her to distance herself from that man," says one of Falicia's attorneys, Claudia Saari, "and from that life."
With or without Mike, Falicia had little in the way of a defense against three counts of murder. But then, five months after the capture, DeKalb County Assistant District Attorney Tom Clegg announced during a pretrial hearing that the state would be going for the death penalty. A different set of challenges arose.
"I think that was the day it just hit her in the face, hard. She started crying and said, 'I'm only 18 years old, and I haven't even finished high school. This is not how I had planned my life,'" says Falicia's other attorney, Ken Driggs. "And then it reached a point where she just really wanted to tell her story. It was very important to her that people understood that she wasn't a monster."
In the weeks before her case was set to go to trial, in February 2004, Falicia made a deal. The state would drop the death penalty component if she'd plead guilty to the three murders and accept three life sentences without parole .
The actual capital punishment part would've been a technicality, anyway. Last year, through blood tests routinely done on jail inmates, Falicia learned she is HIV-positive . Shortly after that, in spring 2003, she called Mike from jail. It would be their last conversation.
"He brushed me off. He was like, 'Oh well,'" Falicia recalls, sitting in a glassed-in isolation room on the fourth floor of the northeast tower of the DeKalb County Jail. "He really didn't care. He don't have a conscious, and he don't have a heart. This man is still living his life, and he's going on about his life" .
News of her infection changed her attorneys' course. They now had to coach her less like legal counselors and more like surrogate parents wanting to help a despairing girl cope with a senseless past and hopeless future.
"A part of our job in helping her is answering, 'How could she have got to this point? What happened to her to lead her to do this?'" Saari says. "She realized immediately what she had done was wrong, of course. She felt this tremendous grief over what she'd done. But why she made those decisions to do what she did took a little bit longer. It took a lot of us saying, 'Look at your life.'"
What they found, they took with them to Falicia's plea hearing. Falicia wanted the victims' families to know at least a little about her past. And she'd been hoping for months to speak to them directly.
On Jan. 16, 2004, prosecutor Clegg briefly laid out in a DeKalb County courtroom the details of the murders of Ray, Doc and Mechi. There was no jury, just the judge, Falicia, her attorneys, her family and the families of Mechi, Doc and Ray.
Smokey wasn't there. She says she couldn't handle it. "I knew it was going to be her apology," she says, "and I didn't want to hear her apology."
After what happened to Marion and Ray, Smokey is convinced she can't trust anyone anymore - not in a world where a person who claims to care for you can turn around and kill you. Marion's boyfriend loved her. He also shot her, from behind, over and over in the head and back. Falicia was Ray's friend. And she also shot him from behind, over and over.
Smokey's sister, Sherita, did manage to go to the hearing, just as she did 12 years earlier when Marion's boyfriend was sentenced. After that first experience, Sherita had managed to find some strength. She named her first daughter Marion. But after Ray, she fell apart. "I had lost, again, another best friend. It's like somebody just cut my heart open and just picked little pieces out of it."
Sherita was recovering from a hysterectomy when Ray died. As a result of the trauma of losing Ray, which was compounded by her weakened state from the surgery, Sherita has been prescribed three anti-depressants for the past year-and-a-half. She says she suffered a nervous breakdown a year ago .
Going into Falicia's hearing, she had little sympathy.
All the victims' families had received letters explaining parts of Falicia's past, as well as her HIV diagnosis . But, according to Sherita, Smokey and Gloria Twitty, all three victims' families had endured drug abuse, violence and degradation. Their personal histories weren't so different from Falicias, and they didn't kill anyone.
That's one thing the survivors pressed Clegg to say in court: Do not be assuaged by a pity story. "She has had a horrific upbringing," Clegg told the judge after he laid out Falicia's crimes, "although that doesn't excuse her."
"What I'm saying here today isn't any kind of justification for her actions," Saari said moments after stepping up to address the court. "There is none."
She then described Falicia's spiraling life: the nightly quotas Michael Berry allegedly set for the young prostitute, the beatings she suffered when she didn't make the quotas, the time she was sprayed with alcohol and set on fire, and the final order Falicia says Mike gave her: Hit a lick or die.
Gloria was unimpressed. She'd flown to Atlanta from Akron for nearly every hearing during the 17-month case, and she, like Sherita, believed any empathy on the families' part would have been naive. Among the women sitting on the courtroom benches that day, there was no room for forgiveness - not yet, anyway.
Gloria, as spokeswoman for the families, took the stand after Saari to quickly dispel any notion that the families had been swayed.
"Falicia Blakely is a cold-blooded killer. She's a serial killer," Gloria told the judge. "She wants to blame everything on Michael Berry. But Michael Berry was not there when my son was killed. ... I heard a lot about what Michael Berry did to her. I didn't hear anything about what Claudell Christmas did to her. I didn't hear anything about what Ray Goodwin did to her. I didn't hear anything about what my son did to her. Because they didn't do anything to her."
Judge Clarence Seeliger then turned to Falicia and said it was up to her whether she wanted to address the families. "Yes," she answered. She walked, a deputy at her side, across the courtroom. Leaning on the stand, she let out a long, shuddering sigh.
"I want to give God the glory and thank Him for giving me the power to apologize to you all," she said, her words slipping into a near-unintelligible mess of tears. "I am so sorry," she managed to eek out. With that, Gloria began to sob uncontrollably. "To the families," Falicia said, "I can only pray. I can only pray you can forgive me."
After the judge read the sentence, he turned to Falicia.
"What has been described to me as your life is almost incomprehensible. I also believe it's true," Seeliger said. "But you've also taken from three men the most valuable thing they owned: their lives."
"After all that's been said today, I believe nothing more can be said."
A few unexpected turns took place after Falicia's plea hearing. For one, Clegg says he's now interested in pursuing charges against Michael Berry for the three murders . "The only evidence we have is the statement of Ms. Blakely that she was told to do this," he points out. "Based on conversations with Ms. [Venus] Hairston," - the woman who'd been arrested with Falicia during both a traffic stop and at Mrs. Winner's - "we don't have the cooperation we need at this juncture."
Venus had posted bond on the Mrs. Winner's armed robbery charge, then bolted. (The murder charge against her was dropped after police learned she didn't accompany Falicia and Pumpkin to either Ray's or Mechi's.) In late February, Venus showed back up and checked into drug rehab .
When Clegg caught up with her, he asked her some questions about Falicia. It turns out Venus was familiar with the abuse Falicia suffered at Mike's hand. "But at least from Venus Hairston's point of view, Falicia didn't seem to be as traumatized as Falicia claims she was," Clegg says. "Obviously, he had some sort of control and ability to manipulate people. But the extent to which these people were afraid of him is unclear."
Clegg says that while his office lacks the evidence needed to take the case to a grand jury, Ameshia "Pumpkin" Ervin's cooperation would be a big help. Because she hasn't pleaded guilty or gone to trial on her own murder charges, she's not talking yet. Until she does, or until some other evidence turns up, Michael Berry will not be investigated for the murders.
"But we'll keep an open mind on it," Clegg says, "because I would like nothing better to prosecute if in fact we believe he's guilty of a crime."
The other surprise was Gloria Twitty. Her mind began to change when Falicia apologized. "At that moment, I saw Falicia Blakely as a little girl, not as a killer. She is a little girl who was corrupted. I just wanted to go up there and hug her. Not because of nothing that her defense attorney said. But when she said she was sorry, that meant more to me than anything she could say or do."
Gloria reached the conclusion that what Falicia said in court, she meant. "I think I have to look at the definition of forgiveness. Because I really do think I forgive her" .
Falicia remains in DeKalb County Jail. She's waiting for Pumpkin's trial, which is scheduled to start in May. She's supposed to testify against her. Falicia will then be sent to prison. She says she wants to spend the limited number of years she has left helping young people like her from ending up the way she did. She hopes to start with her son. The 3-year-old already is asking questions that can only be answered with: "No, Mikaele, I'm never coming home. Mommy was bad."
"I want somebody to look at my situation," she says. "I'm 20. And, according to many, I'm never going to touch ground again. And I'm infected with a virus, which of course means I probably will live half of my years. People are looking at me like I'm just apathetic. I don't have no heart, no feelings, and I didn't have no motive. And that's not true. And I don't want it to go down in history that that's the type of person I am. I don't want people to think that I'm just evil.
"These women, these young girls, these people out there doing whatever for means of surviving really don't think about what they're doing. Those streets are so real. I met so many people out there that would just hit a lick. Everybody's trying to get somebody. When you're in there, that's the moment. You're willing to do whatever you got to do to get it. And don't nobody never just think about the life that you're taking."
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